By the time I was old enough to start choosing sports allegiances, I had already been indoctrinated by the cult of Boston sports.
I remember in kindergarten, my classmates talked about how their parents had let them stay up to watch the Red Sox (finally) win the World Series. At recess or at friends’ houses, whenever we would play baseball, everyone wanted to be David Ortiz, hitting walk-off home runs to beat the opposing team, which was almost always the Yankees.
But despite the onslaught of Boston sports championships and the rotating cast of heroes who brought them home — the Big Three of Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett winning the Celtics a title in 2008; Tim Thomas’ legendary performances during the Bruins’ 2011 Stanley Cup run; Koji Uehara’s masterful saves that secured the Red Sox a third World Series title for the 2000s — there was always one man who stood above the rest: Tom Brady.
I wasn’t old enough to remember the first three Super Bowls that Tom won. The unlikely upset of Kurt Warner’s “Greatest Show on Turf” Rams and the back-to-back wins over the Panthers and the Eagles all happened before I started watching football and, certainly, before my parents would let me stay up past 8 p.m.
When I finally did get into football, it coincided with the Patriots’ championship drought. I was living in Japan during their almost perfect season, but my parents wouldn’t let me skip school to watch the ill-fated Super Bowl against the Giants that doomed the Pats to 18-1.
Fortunately for me and the rest of New England, Tom and the Patriots found their second wind. In 2015, I finally got to watch the Patriots win a Super Bowl, behind Tom’s four touchdown-passes that eliminated a ten point, fourth quarter deficit against the Seahawks. Earlier that season, Trent Dilfer had proclaimed, now rather infamously, that the dynasty had died after a blowout loss to the Chiefs on Monday Night Football. But the opposite was true — the dynasty was back and better than ever.
Two years later, I sat in my living room with my friends as Tom did the impossible yet again. With the Falcons holding a 28-3 lead in the late third-quarter, Tom led scoring drive after scoring drive, bringing the Patriots to within 16, then within eight, and then tying it up with less than a minute left. It was like watching poetry on a field, and even though the Falcons’ lead looked insurmountable, something inside me knew that there was always a chance with Tom under center.
Despite dropping the next season’s Super Bowl to the Eagles, in a game where Tom threw for a Super Bowl record 505 yards, Tom came back the following year to lead the Patriots to their sixth Super Bowl, again beating the Rams in a defensive showdown.
Flash forward to Tuesday, March 17. I’m finishing up packing my bags as I prepare to head home from a COVID-shortened study abroad when I see the notification from Adam Schefter pop up on my phone. Tom Brady is leaving New England.
My first response was disbelief, followed by a resigned sadness. This isn’t how I wanted it to end for Brady in New England. Maybe he should’ve retired after that Super Bowl against the Rams, riding off into the sunset a champion just as Peyton Manning had a few years prior. Or maybe he should have stayed a Patriot for his whole career, joining Derek Jeter, Larry Bird and Dan Marino on the list of one team warriors.
As the dust has settled, instead of feeling resent towards Tom and his decision, I’ve found only a profound sense of gratitude for the greatest quarterback, greatest football player and greatest winner of all-time.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, the “bad” years for the Patriots between 2005 and 2014 were seasons that most other fan bases would have killed for. Tom still led the Patriots to eight division titles, two AFC championships and won two MVP awards and seven Pro Bowl nods for his work along the way.
Any disappointment that came from those soul-crushing losses to the Giants or from the early AFC playoff exits to the Broncos or Ravens paled in comparison to the euphoria felt watching Tom lift the Lombardi Trophy after yet another game-winning fourth quarter drive.
Life is hard, and for so many people sports is a distraction, something to focus on outside the dull, harsh realities of our quotidian routines. And for almost twenty years, Tom made being a Patriots fan the easiest job the world. We were almost guaranteed an AFC Championship game appearance, and in the eighteen seasons with Tom at the helm, the Patriots made the Super Bowl in half of those.
This winning streak did little to help Boston sports fans’ already, shall we say, negative reputation among other sports lovers — if you were already a Masshole before Tom’s six Super Bowls, then words cannot describe what non-New Englanders think of you now.
But it’s hard to argue that our collective apotheosizing of Tom Brady isn’t deserved: six Super Bowls, nine AFC Championships, four Super Bowl MVPs, three regular-season MVPs, and a 77.4 percent career win percentage. He has more playoff wins as an individual than 27 NFL teams, and there are only 32 teams in total. It’s almost ironic that he’s now going to a franchise in Tampa Bay that’s won six playoff games ever, a mere fraction of Tom’s 32 postseason victories.
There’s a Japanese term “ mono no aware,” which describes the sadness felt while looking at something beautiful because you know it’s transient and will eventually come to an end. Perhaps naively, I felt that Tom defied this. He was such a mainstay on my TV on Sundays that I never thought there would come a time where he wouldn’t be there. He won the Super Bowl when I was in preschool and was still winning it when I was in college; the man seemed to exist outside the laws of time.
It will be tough to turn on the TV this fall and watch someone else take the reins at Gillette, and it will hurt to watch Tom come out in the (hideous) red and orange uniforms of the Buccaneers, with a skull and crossbones on his helmet instead of the Patriots’ famous Flying Elvis. But sometimes these things happen, and it’s better to be grateful for what we had than to be bitter about what could have been.
Good luck in Tampa, Tom — thanks for everything.